US predicts war in Ukraine in winter; Allies improve air defenses

BRUSSELS, Oct 12 (Reuters) – Ukraine will fight through a harsh winter to wrest more territory from Russia, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday. In the wake of Russian missile attacks.

Military analysts are watching to see if fighting is slowing down in Ukraine’s harsh winters. It could give troops on both sides of the conflict a chance to reset after months of brutal fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

But speaking at a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels of some 50 countries that provide military aid to Ukraine, Austin said he expected Kiev to do what it could after retaking territory occupied by Russian forces in recent weeks.

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“I expect Ukraine to do everything it can throughout the winter to regain its territory and be effective on the battlefield,” Austin told a news conference.

“And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they have what they need to be useful.”

A senior U.S. defense official said Ukraine has “outreach” support to help during the winter fighting months, including providing winter clothing.

“But what about those Russian forces? What kind of support are they going to get in the winter? Right now, the Russians are isolated and alone,” the official said.

Several countries have condemned the invasion, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling it a “special military operation” to ensure Russian security and protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of waging war to seize territory or invade pro-Western neighbors.

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Missile attacks

Austin opened the NATO event sitting next to his Ukrainian counterpart, condemning Putin’s deadly missile strikes against “non-military targets” across Ukraine two days earlier.

US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the strikes met the definition of war crimes under the international rules of war. Kyiv and its allies have repeatedly accused Russian forces of war crimes and targeting civilians, charges Russia has denied.

“Russia has deliberately attacked civilian infrastructure with the intent to harm civilians,” Milley told reporters.

“They have targeted the elderly, women and children of Ukraine. Indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilian targets are war crimes under the international laws of war.”

Recent Russian airstrikes in Ukraine have killed 19 people, injured more than 100 and cut power across the country, adding new urgency to Kyiv’s longstanding calls for air defense to protect its cities.

Germany announced that the first of four IRIS-T air defense systems had reached Ukraine. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht called it “very important support for Ukraine in the fight against missile attacks.”

A ‘physiological response’?

The meeting in Brussels was the first major NATO meeting in moves the alliance characterized as a clear escalation of the war since Moscow announced its annexation of four parts of Ukraine in September, announced a mobilization and issued veiled nuclear threats.

A senior NATO official said a Russian nuclear strike would change the course of the conflict and would almost certainly prompt a “physical response” from Ukraine’s allies — “and possibly from NATO itself.”

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The official did not elaborate on what the physical response would be.

NATO’s nuclear planning committee will hold a closed-door meeting on Thursday, but the alliance has not released details on what specifically will be discussed.

Speaking ahead of a two-day meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would continue its annual nuclear readiness exercise next week.

He was referring to the “Steadfast Noon” exercise, in which NATO air forces deploy US nuclear bombs based in Europe with training aircraft, without live weapons.

Stoltenberg said canceling the drills because of the war in Ukraine would send “a very wrong signal”.

“This is an exercise to ensure that our nuclear deterrent is safe, secure and effective,” he said, adding that NATO’s military strength is the best way to prevent tensions from escalating. Moscow accuses the West of escalating the conflict by supporting Kiev.

Europe is already on edge after attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea, although it is unclear who is behind the explosions.

NATO has said it will meet attacks on allies’ critical infrastructure with a “coordinated and determined response”. It has already doubled its presence to more than 30 ships supported by air and undersea operations in the Baltic and North Seas.

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Reporting by Sabine Siebold, Philip Blenkinsop and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by John Chalmers and John Strubczewski; Editing by Nick McPhee, Jonathan Otis and Grant McCool

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